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Iran’s Enablers in Latin America

Just how much should we be worried about Iran’s activity in Latin America? Consider a few recent news items:

* Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani took a brief tour of South America last week, visiting Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. He got a warm reception at each stop. Indeed, his Brazilian counterpart, Maria Edileuza Fontenele, went so far as to say that Iran is one of her country’s “most important partners.” According to the Latin Business Chronicle, Iranian exports to Brazil increased by a whopping 29.1 percent in 2009, hitting $19 million, while Brazilian exports to Iran jumped by 4.1 percent to reach nearly $1.3 billion. Iran does more trade with Brazil than with any other country in Latin America.

* In early August, Iran formally agreed to build 10,000 homes in Venezuela, which is experiencing a major housing shortage (not to mention food, water, and electricity shortages).

* At a press briefing on July 25, Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed concern about the burgeoning alliance between Tehran and Caracas.

* The day before Mullen delivered his remarks, Gen. Francisco Contreras, Peru’s former military chief of staff, gave a sobering interview to the Jerusalem Post. “We definitely need to be concerned with the growing presence of Iran in South America,” he said. “It appears that Iranian organizations provide support to other terrorist organizations, and that there is cooperation between them.”

* July 18 marked the 17th anniversary of a terrorist bombing that destroyed the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires and killed 85 people. It was — and remains — the single worst act of terrorism in Argentine history. The evidence that Tehran planned this attack is overwhelming, and Interpol has issued arrest warrants for several past or present Iranian officials. On the eve of the anniversary, Tehran informed Argentina that it was “ready for a constructive dialogue” about the AMIA bombing, yet it still refused to acknowledge Iranian culpability, and it still refused to extradite the Interpol suspects. One of those suspects, Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, is now serving as Iran’s defense minister.

* In late May, the Bolivian government hosted an official visit by General Vahidi, who subsequently left the country after Argentina protested. Upon arriving back in Tehran, Vahidi declared that “Latin America is no longer the U.S. backyard,” adding that “Iran will continue expanding its constructive relations with this region’s countries, especially the countries of the ALBA alliance.” (ALBA — otherwise known as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas — is the leftist trade group led by Venezuela.)

* A few weeks before General Vahidi traveled to Bolivia, the German newspaper Die Welt reported that Iran was building rocket bases in Venezuela.

When we look at Iranian relations with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and also Nicaragua, it is hard to deny that the Islamic Republic is (1) pursuing a strategic foothold in the Western Hemisphere and (2) using its Latin American partnerships to blunt the impact of global sanctions.

Tehran’s alliance with Caracas — which includes financial, energy, and military cooperation — has also allowed Hezbollah (the Iranian-backed terror group) to expand its footprint in South America. (Three years ago, the U.S. Treasury Department accused the Venezuelan government of  “employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers.”) Indeed, the Hugo Chávez regime has effectively become an Iranian satellite. Israeli officials believe that both Venezuela and Bolivia have provided Iran with uranium for its nuclear program.

Bolivian President Evo Morales is a Chávez disciple, as is his Ecuadorean counterpart, Rafael Correa. This past February, after obtaining Ecuadorean government documents, former U.S. National Security Council official José Cárdenas reported that Iran and Ecuador “have concluded a $30 million deal to conduct joint mining projects in Ecuador that appears to lay the groundwork for future extractive activities. The deal, which was apparently finalized in December 2009, ‘expresses the interest of the President of the Republic [of Ecuador] and the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum to boost closer and mutually beneficial relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran on a variety of fronts, among them mining and geology.’” As Cárdenas observed, Ecuador has significant uranium deposits.

To be sure, no serious person thinks that Brazil is aiding the Iranian nuclear program or facilitating Hezbollah operations. Yet by massively expanding bilateral trade relations with Iran, the South American giant is undermining the U.S.-led sanctions push and boosting Tehran’s global legitimacy. (We should note that Iranian trade with Argentina has also ballooned.) The Islamic Republic wants to be treated like a normal country — indeed, it wants to be treated like a Middle Eastern regional superpower. When a top Brazilian official describes Iran as a critically important “partner,” it becomes much more difficult for the United States to isolate Tehran and build support for tougher sanctions.

The Brazilians may argue that they are merely pursuing their national economic interests. But they are also enhancing the perceived legitimacy of the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism — a regime that massacres student democracy protestors, denies the Holocaust, and threatens Israel with nuclear annihilation. If Brazil wants to be viewed as a responsible global leader, its Iran policy will have to change.

Read this article in Spanish here.